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Pioneers Explore New Frontiers

Annual Report - Winter 2012

Junior faculty benefit from experienced scientists

By William Fitzgerald

After more than 15 years of submitting grants, Khandan Keyomarsi, Ph.D., knows what it takes to be successful. It’s this knowledge that led her to develop a program geared toward junior faculty, so they would know, too.

Khandan Keyomarsi, 

The Pioneers program, short for Physicians, Investigators in Research Studies, began in 2007 to increase interaction between physician scientists. What resulted was an innovative forum for selected faculty within five years of their first appointment. The program delves into issues such as time management and successfully obtaining research grants.

In each monthly session, a new investigator presents his or her study’s aims and research methods to senior faculty and alumni. The feedback received is instant, straightforward and, often, advice that would never have been heard elsewhere.

“The most important part of a successful grant is not all the minutiae, but how to ask significant, hypothesis-driven questions,” says Keyomarsi, professor in the Department of Experimental Radiation Oncology. “This is what I’ve learned over the years, through my own mistakes, and that knowledge is passed to new investigators.”

Guidance from institutional leadership

“The creation of Pioneers has enhanced an intensive program of mentoring that includes dual mentors for laboratory and clinical physician scientists,” says Robert Bast, M.D., vice president for translational research. He meets with physician scientists every four to six months to review their work.

Patrick Zweidler-McKay, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Division of Pediatrics, began participating in Pioneers soon after he was recruited to 
MD Anderson. He recalls a session with Bast, discussing the best way to present data for a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society grant. Because grants originate from a range of sources, including government agencies and foundations, each has its own requirements that can add to the complexity of describing a research proposal.

“I think many junior faculty feel isolated and hesitant about reaching out to senior faculty to discuss their research,” Zweidler-McKay says. “However, this type of mentoring makes a significant difference in a person’s early career success.”

And the success speaks for itself. Nearly 86% of the 24 faculty who graduated from the physician scientist program received a grant, or are principal investigators on multi-investigator grants.

“Everyone is excited when a grant gets funded,” Keyomarsi says. “It’s the ultimate goal of the program.”

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